The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Tag Archives: Strange sightings

THE ACCIDENTAL EXPAT: As an expat spouse, I had a ticket to explore life’s infinite possibilities

THE ACCIDENTAL EXPAT
With this post, Indra Chopra wraps up her account of life as a privileged expat spouse, which she found just as enriching in Asia as she did in the Middle East. Hm, can a memoir be far off?ML Awanohara

To continue where I left off in my last installment: Expat life in Hong Kong spoiled me. There was such a range of things and experiences to try, whether it was the cuisine, from street food to sumptuous banquets; apparel, from local brands to top designers; or sightseeing, from standard to offbeat adventures.

My one regret was that I was at least a decade late to the party. Hong Kong feels like a young person’s habitat. It’s a land of opportunity and, when it comes to activities, one is spoilt for choice.

My old stomping—or is it dawdling?—grounds in Hong Kong

While I’m not exactly a doddering dowager, over the years my priorities have changed to something more staid. In the initial months following our arrival, I would dawdle away several hours along Nathan Road, Kowloon’s main thoroughfare. I would start at the iconic Peninsula Hotel, which flaunts its large fleet of customized Rolls-Royce Phantoms (painted “Peninsula green”) and an afternoon tea that is served in the aristocratic ambience of colonial times—features that have earned it the epithet “Grande Dame of the Far East”.

I studiously avoided the blatant commercialism of the shopping arcades and new malls, the ubiquitous sellers of “genuine fake” watches, the touristy gift shops, and the crowded dai pai dongs (open-air food stalls).

Instead I would meander towards the quirky neighborhood of Yau Ma Tei and then would move on to Jordan, an area full of countless small shops, which also has a seedier side. One can sometimes glimpse dimly lit stairways to massage parlors or off-limits clubs with bouncers ready to bounce you back into the neon-lit pavement and the dense pedestrian and vehicular traffic, not to mention the continuous projection of entertainment, things for sale, and cultural attractions constantly trying to lure you in.

Indra’s stomping—or is it dawdling?—grounds in Hong Kong

Getting from A to B has never been easier!

We soon acquired our Permanent IDs and Hong Kong driver’s licenses, which provided a feeling of security. Every six months or so, we would review our plans to purchase a car, only to be dissuaded by well-meaning friends, who would point to the traffic and exorbitant parking fees.

As it turned out, our flat didn’t come with a parking space—or maybe it did but the landlord rented it separately.

Another reason for dithering was that Hong Kong’s public transport system is convenient, reliable and always-on time. I still feel embarrassed thinking back to an occasion when I was meeting with some friends for a day out. New to Hong Kong, I gave myself a margin of one hour only to arrive in 20 minutes flat (and that was after a couple of changes, from the hotel shuttle to the Mass Transit Railway, or MTR, and from one subway line to another). My friends were surprised to hear I’d set out so early. I was calculating by Indian Standard Time, a euphemistic expression that acknowledges we Indians are always late.

Another advantage of public transport was that it helped me hone my pronunciation skills, providing a chance to reify such fuzzy place names as Fung Yuen, Ting Kok, Tai Mei Tuk, Sha Tau Kok, Wo Keng Shan, Yuen Po Street, Yuen Ngai Street, Yim Po Fong Street, Hak Po Street, etc. I would jot down these names in my iPhone but the words would soon fade.

For a long time I thought Pok Fu Lam was a pork dish until someone pointed out it is one of Hong Kong’s high-end areas! Landmarks were easier to remember except on the occasions when the store/café/cha chaan teng (tea houses)/dai pai dong/fish stall in question had disappeared overnight.

Knowing that one could rely on the MTR (or other public transport) for my escape was a welcome thought whenever I would become overwhelmed by Hong Kong’s busy cafes, book stores, convenience stores, posh shops, popular hiking spots, beaches…

The joys of riding the MTR

Exploring to my heart’s content

As an expat, I am more inquisitive than acquisitive. I did not want to waste energy in “keeping up with Joneses” and relished my anonymity, a status that permitted me to explore to my heart’s content. I would amble through neighborhoods, mysterious alleys, busy and deserted city streets, temples and pubs, the promenades (Tsim Sha Tsui, West Kowloon), Central Hong Kong, Aberdeen, the outlying islands, mountain paths… I would hop on to ferries/MTR/buses in search of the unfiltered and unlisted.

I never felt self-conscious venturing out on my own, nor did I look over my shoulder. It felt safe and normal to be a solo female in pursuit of my own little adventures.

At the beginning I would seek advice from friends, but in due course I could plan a day’s outing by using guides and maps. I would select a destination that was manageable for my walking level, from the crowded to the remote. Hong Kong is blessed with hundreds of islands, and I wanted to cover as much as I could.

So much territory to cover, so little time!

In the expat life, wonders never cease

Life was a kind of party for me until 2013, when we decided to move back to our home base: Gurgaon, India. After that we had a life of reverse travel, staying in Hong Kong for stretches in furnished apartments. I missed the continuity of expat life and the opportunity it provides for participating in local events and other activities only insiders would hear about.

Some say that a major limitation of expat life is that feeling of dépaysement, the sense of disorientation that can come from being outside of your home country. To be honest, I never experienced this feeling in my long stays in Hong Kong or Oman, simply because to me home is, as my favorite travel chronicler, displaced Indian writer Pico Iyer has said, “not just the place where you happen to be born. It’s the place where you become yourself.”

In fact I often wonder how my personality would have developed had I stayed at home in the place of my birth/marriage and missed out on interactions with different nationalities and sensibilities, and been denied all the knowledge I obtained from other countries, all the many learning opportunities. There were times when I felt frazzled with the packing and unpacking and would envy friends and family living in their family homes and mansions, going for vacations and shopping abroad for a few months in a year. For them, “worldly possessions” always meant luxury.

But, then I would recall chance encounters I would have missed out on—for instance:

  • My encounters with a fellow walker in the Qurum Natural Park Rose Garden, located in the heart of Muscat (Oman’s capital city). The lady would stop me to gush about my “luck” in speaking English, the idea being that English-speaking Indians were India’s biggest export, and about how she wanted her children to study the English language. After several such encounters, I stopped going to the park as I knew where it was headed…to an invitation to coach her children.
  • The time in Salalah, Oman, when an acquaintance patted my stomach in show of remorse that I have “only two children” when she was expecting her sixth. I felt like telling her: “Lady, I am fortunate”; but desisted as we were her guests. Different countries and different takes…
  • The time in New York when a giant (to me) 6+-feet-tall African American jogger stopped in his tracks and exclaimed: “But you are so small!”
  • Countless times In Hong Kong when the super slim sales girls made me feel fat, even though I am considered “petite” in the western world and my country.

Like many of us expats, Indra sometimes felt as though she’d fallen down the rabbit hole

My husband and I have also encountered hostile reactions to our presence in foreign lands. That has been its own kind of learning process. Those who’ve taught us harsher lessons have included:

  • A churlish waitress in Shanghai who insisted on serving us beef despite our telling her we do not eat beef—my friend even drew a chicken and made flapping sounds.
  • The impassive adults in Mainland China and Hong Kong who refused to sit next to us on public transport.
  • Salespeople in a watch/perfume or brand apparel showrooms in Hong Kong who made sarcastic “no cheepo” comments simply because we happened to be from the subcontinent.
  • Someone in San Francisco who responded to my presence with a racial slur…

We travelers need to have resilience, and I’ve always been able to brush aside these unfriendly receptions. To quote Pico Iyer again:

“…I’ve always felt that the beauty of being surrounded by the foreign is that it slaps you awake.”

Repatriated, for now

For the past five months we have been living in our home city, Gurgaon. The reason: my husband is helping a friend from Mainland China set up a business in India. I am in my own house and can hire full-time help 365 days a year or have an army of part-timers doing specific tasks. I have opted for the latter: they return when they see the doors ajar.

We are back to where we ended/started. I see the shift as an opportunity to conclude my the travelogue I’ve been writing for the past four years. Whenever I tell myself “this is the last entry,” fresh new flashbacks wait to be uploaded.

In spring, the gardens here are in full bloom: mango blossoms and frangipani flowers. It’s also the time when we have the Holi festival of colors. Whenever I hear the warbling of a koel, it transports me to my hometown of Allahabad: I am surrounded by mango trees, taking an early morning dip in the River Ganges.

In short this is the best season to be in India. It is also the season for flu and since I was late in getting my flu shot, I’ve had a scratchy throat, hacking cough and fever these past couple of weeks(!).

Spring has sprung in India

Some parting thoughts

I’ve reconnected with my book club, and somewhat to my surprise, this month’s book is A Long Way Home, by Saroo Brierley, which as you probably know, has been turned into the movie Lion. The story tells of five-year-old Saroo’s harrowing train journey from somewhere in Central India across the plains to end in Kolkata on the Eastern shores. He saves himself from hunger, rape, murder and the adoption home in this story of grit and ingenuity.

I fully empathized with Saroo as I find Kolkata (Calcutta) the filthiest city in India. (I first visited Kolkata in 1979, and that was my last because I refused to set foot in the city despite its historical and literary past.)

Saroo is adopted by an Australian couple and taken to Tasmania. But eventually he is consumed by the desire to find his real family and, using Google Earth, tracks the place of his birth and early childhood. Twenty-five years after his departure from India, he returns to his hometown and is reunited with his biological mother and sister. The story has a fairy-tale ending: the two families are united and everyone lives happily ever after.

Reading this novel has rekindled another memory—of an afternoon spent with a friend in Guangzhou, China, in 2011. My friend had taken me to a city park and I was surprised to see nearly a dozen Caucasian parents with identical prams containing Chinese infants. I had read about the adoption process being a large-scale industry in China; but I found I had mixed emotions at the sight of these innocent babies, oblivious about their soon-to-be-taken journeys to far-away lands. On the one hand, it’s a blessing for these children to find homes where they’ll be loved and cared for. On the other, I wondered whether these children would someday seek closure like Saroo did.

The picture of these prams comes to mind whenever I read about adopted children returning to their “homes” to find their real parents. It must be a good thing that China has now ended its famous one-child policy that made so many parents opt to keep the boys or “Little Buddhas” and give away the girls for adoption or to relatives.

And speaking of adoption, I now look back on the life that I led in my adoptive city, Hong Kong, through the privileged eyes of a global citizen. True, the island country has problems with increasing population, pollution, traffic and rampant materialism. But for me it will always be a rainbow land, where I was able to lead a charmed existence.

Reading about an adopted Indian child in A Long Way Home, Indra’s first association takes her back to her adopted homeland…

* * *

Thank you, Indra! I appreciate your ability to see the bigger picture in all of this. Despite setbacks, despite coming to the party a little late, as you put it, you made the most of your expat opportunities and always understood how privileged you were to have places like Muscat and Hong Kong as your personal playgrounds. I also really appreciate your story about reading A Long Way Home with your book club back in India. It often strikes me that one of the biggest legacies of expat life is having a different set of associations to most people in your homeland! I take these instances as little reminders of the enriched life I have led, and I suspect you do as well… —ML Awanohara

Indra Chopra is a writer/blogger passionate about travel and curious about cultures and people. Her present status is that of an accidental expat writing to relive moments in countries wherever she sets home with her husband. With over twenty years of writing experience Indra has contributed to Indian, Middle Eastern publications and online media. She blogs at TravTrails

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of posts from The Displaced Nation, and much much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits: Opening visual: Airplane photo and India photo via Pixabay. Other photos supplied or else downloaded from Pixabay.

Advertisements

A valentine to kindred creative spirits encountered in far-away lands

Expat life has a transient quality that is not always conducive to making close friends. Thus when two people reach out and find a connection, it feels very special, as we learn from this guest post by Philippa Ramsden, a Scottish writer who until recently was living in Burma/Myanmar. Philippa has been on our site before. Her story about discovering she had breast cancer shortly after her arrival in Rangoon/Yangon was one of the dragonfruit “morsels” that Shannon Young, who contributes our Diary of an Expat Writer column, chose to share with the release of an anthology she edited in 2014, How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia. I must say, it is a pleasure to have Philippa back in our midst. Not only is she doing much better health-wise, but her story of friendship makes a perfect read for Valentine’s Day! —ML Awanohara

As I was eating my breakfast quietly this morning, in this peaceful retreat, I was joined at the table by another couple. We started chatting a little, enthusiastic about the day ahead and our various plans for exploring, relaxing and creating.

That’s when I saw the plate of dragonfruit in front of them! I hadn’t seen dragonfruit since leaving Asia, I did not even know it grew in South America*.

It was a striking coincidence given the special place dragonfruit holds in my creative heart. The first time I had my writing published in a proper book was when it appeared in the How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? anthology, which came out in 2014. What’s more, something unexpected emerged from the process of refining the writing in preparation for publication, which ultimately led to my present surroundings.

* * *

We were a team of 27 women, including and guided by our editor, Shannon Young, towards producing a collection of stories from our lives as women in Asia. Stories of our lives in countries where we were essentially guests, for a shorter or longer term. From a dozen different countries, we varied enormously in our situations but were tied together by the fact that we were all, or had been, women living in Asia as expatriates.

It was fascinating to get to know each other through our stories and through email connection as we were kept up to date on the decision of the title, the reveal of the cover art and the lead-up to publication.

Just after my writer’s copy of the anthology arrived, I received an email from one of the other writers, Sharon Brown. She had read my account of moving to Myanmar and being diagnosed with cancer. I, meanwhile, had read her story, “Our Little Piece of Vietnam,” in which she recounted hurtling through the streets of Hanoi on the back of a motorbike while being in the throes of labor, reaching the hospital just in time for the (safe) arrival of her daughter.

Sharon had reached out to me because she and her family were moving to Yangon!

“Once we’re settled in, if you have time, I would love to meet with you for tea one day,” her email said.

And indeed we did. Just think, had it not been for our Dragonfruit connection, it is highly unlikely that our paths would have crossed in Myanmar over the two years of their stay. We would not have enjoyed those cuppas and chats, writing together or being part of the same book club.

A wonderful connection, thanks to the Dragonfruit anthology.

cuppas-and-chats

Fast forward two years, to May 2016. As it turned out, Sharon and I were both preparing to leave Myanmar. I was packing to leave Asia for Africa, and I learned that she was leaving Asia for South America: Ecuador. Along with her husband, she was embracing the opportunity to take on a new challenge. They would be running an eco-lodge in Ecuador, something close to their hearts, values and beliefs. They were filled with enthusiasm and zest for their new adventure.

Sharon said:

“You should come to the lodge. It would be the perfect place for a writing retreat. Do come.”

What a fascinating thought—but hardly a likely venture. Ecuador is further west than I have ever travelled. It is more than a day’s travel from Africa. Would it be rash to travel such a distance when the year has already seen such intensity, change and indeed long-distance travel? Would it not be wasteful given that there is so much to explore on my new African doorstep?

These are sensible questions, but my mind is not so wise. The thought kept returning that this is an opportunity which might not arise again. That it is probably better to travel when health is reasonable as nothing can be taken for granted. And the sneaking reminder, that if I did visit Ecuador, then incredibly, this would be a year which would see me on no less than five continents. (I do believe that I have not travelled to more than two continents in any year in the past.) How many grandmothers are able to do that?

* * *

So here I am, in the beautiful La Casa Verde Eco Guest House, nestling in the hills of Ecuador. I am sitting on the balcony of what is now being called “The Writing Room”, tapping away at the keyboard with the steep green hills right in front of me, the sound of a donkey braying in the distance, the trees swaying in the breeze and in the company of blue grey tanagers. The creative silence of the past months is being lifted gently in these inspiring hills.

I could not resist the temptation of visiting such a new part of the world to me, and of bringing the year to a close in a peaceful and inspiring place.

Had it not been for our Dragonfruit connection, I might never have made it to this fascinating new land. Serendipity and the friendship of a kindred spirit have enabled this retreat to happen.

Like so many journeys, the one to get here was not an easy one, but I am powerfully reminded of the importance of making that effort and seizing the day. These opportunities are to be embraced and treasured. And will surely be long remembered.

Thank you, Dragonfruit!

Editor’s note: In fact, dragonfruit, or pitaya, is native to the Americas.

serendipity-and-friendship

* * *

And thank YOU, Philippa, for such an uplifting story! Displaced Nationers, do you have any stories of friendships that blossomed because of creative pursuits, and if so, did they lead you to new parts of the world? Do tell in the comments.

And if this excerpt has made you curious to about Philippa Ramsden, her blog is Feisty Blue Gecko, where a version of this post first appeared. You can also find her on Facebook and twitter. She has written several meditations on the challenges and joys of life in a foreign environment—and they are all fascinating. She is currently working on a memoir.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a biweekly roundup of posts from The Displaced Nation and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits:
Opening visual: (clockwise, from top left) Dragonfruit anthology cover art; the photos of schoolgirls in Baños, Ecuador (where the eco-lodge is), of the two young women in a field in Myanmar, and the two kinds of dragonfruit are all from Pixabay.
Second visual: The photos of the cups of tea and of the two women making a heart with their hands are both from Pixabay. Image on the left: Inside The Strand Hotel & some of their gift shops – Rangoon, Myanmar (Burma), by Kathy via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); image on right: downtown Rangoon with Sule Pagoda in distance, supplied by Philippa Ramsden.
Last visual: The photos of the green hills of Ecuador and the eco-lodge balcony view were supplied by Philippa; the photo of the blue grey tanagers is from Pixabay; and the rainbow image should be attributed as: Ecuador, over the rainbow, Baños, by Rinaldo Wurglitsch via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

THE ACCIDENTAL EXPAT: Moving on to fabulous, fragrant (and fatiguing!) Hong Kong

THE ACCIDENTAL EXPAT
At the moment when women all over the world are demanding a right to be heard, columnist Indra Chopra is here to remind us that an expat spouse is a person in her own right, with her own voice. Something else that makes her column well timed: it is about Hong Kong. I can guarantee her descriptions (particularly of food!) will put you in the mood for Chinese New Year, which is just around the corner… ML Awanohara

In a previous post, I described my family’s expat life in Muscat, Oman. Our next big adventure was a move to Hong Kong, which took place after a planned hiatus of six years in our home country.

I agreed to the Hong Kong move, not because of the Indian family tradition of a wife walking seven steps behind her husbandbut because I, too, am into adventure.

Join me as I take you into the fabulous, fragrant place I initially encountered.

* * *

Water brings luck

No sooner had I agreed to our move to Hong Kong but I am looking down from a rental suite on the 38th floor of Harborview Horizon in Hung Hom, Kowloon, at the teal waters of Victoria Harbour. There is a line of vessels—scampering ferries, catamarans with orangey-brown sails, nose-in-the-air cruise ships with names like Star Virgo and Pisces, rusty junks, barges and sampans—silhouetted against the vast blue sky, with brawny mountains in the distance.

I spend the entire day settling in while taking sneak-peeks at the unfolding harbour scenes. By the time night falls, it looks as though someone has taken a painter’s brush and dabbed sequined color on the concrete structures in the distance and then streaked the water in rainbow hues…

On the day of our arrival in Hong Kong, a friend told us that staying near water brings luck. Hm, is that what the Britishers felt when they first set foot in “The Fragrant Harbor” in 1841, and is that why they stayed for so long?

fabulous-victoria-harbour

A taste of “home”

The so-called City Island is eons ahead of staid Muscat, and I find myself unsure of how to approach my new life: as a novice or as a widely traveled person critically appraising what was on offer?

Being Indian, I am naturally drawn to Chungking Mansion (Nathan Road, in Tsim Sha Shui, Kowloon), a building full of small, family-run Indian and Pakistani restaurants serving traditional food. Believe me, the best Indian snacks or spices in Hong Kong can be found in little peek-a-boo stores under stairs or between shops—dark patches one could easily overlook while being bombarded with DVDs, mobile phones, suitcases, watches, currency exchangers, not to mention steady streams of locals and foreign tourists. I would taste the best butter chicken I would eat during my time in Hong Kong at a Pakistani eating-place on one of the floors of Chungking. I like the feeling that no one can ever get to the bottom of this cavernous, mysterious place. The possibilities are limitless.

a-taste-of-home

Fabulous…and fragrant

Our fresh-off-the-boat year is mesmeric…and exhausting. We are constantly meeting new people and making new friends among Hong Kong’s potpourri of nationalities. I never get homesick, except for family, thanks to the sizable Indian diaspora.

Now, it would be easy to be a stay-at-home wife who joins the various kirtan (prayer) groups, coffee mornings or kitty parties. Watching me deliberate on which Indian ladies to befriend, a British friend is surprised: “What’s the big deal, aren’t you all Indians?” Well, yes, but each of us has our own individual traits.

But something within me desires a whole set of new experiences. I know I won’t rest until I can understand more about the vignettes of daily life I keep witnessing as I navigate my new surroundings.

Perhaps energized by Hong Kong’s Autonomy Movement, I start asserting my own autonomy. Joining the crowds on the Peak Tram and the Mid-Levels escalator, I step out of my comfort zone and start peeking into the curtained windows of posh villas and spa treatment facilities that reek of Chinese herbs and other concoctions. I sense there is something unique about this place. Part of it is a sensibility but there is also an aroma that is manifestly Chinese.

I start taking day trips to Macau, China’s Las Vegas clone. I queue up for weekend ferries to the outlying islands of Chueng Chau, Lama, Lantau, Peng Chau, Pui Oh, Tai Wan Long, and Sai Kung. I even join some treks and hikes, including to the Ng Tung Chai waterfall, the biggest in Hong Kong, and within the lush, secluded greenery of the New Territories.

I visit the former Kowloon Walled City (Kowloon Walled City Park), the history of which traces back to the Song Dynasty (960–1279), when an outpost was set up to manage the trade of salt.

Strolling through subterranean air-conditioned passages or along overhead walkaways, I find aspects of my adopted home enchanting. I stand mute in front of the iconic lions as I reach the front of the HSBC Main Building in Central, which was designed by British architect Norman Foster. Catching sight of the International Finance Centre (IFC), I visualize French Spider-Man, Alain Robert, doing loops atop its towers; and, as I make my way through the high rises of Central, Wan Chai and Causeway Bay, I feel like Moses as he walks through the parting seas in The Ten Commandments.

Hong Kong has an excellent public transportation system, and I even manage solo travel to Lo Wu, which lies on the border between Hong Kong and mainland China, though I do not cross over to Shenzhen as I still don’t have my China visa.

On brutally hot days, I hop on a bus or a train and escape to an unknown neighborhoods in search of alfresco cafes, local designer stores, tearooms, parks and gardens, art galleries or libraries.

Whenever I feel I have seen and done it all, I have a niggling doubt there is more.

fabulous-and-fragrant-hk

Fabulous, fragrant…and fatiguing

Although Hong Kong still has pockets of antiquity here and there, with links to the region’s rich historical past, much of the region is in flux. For instance, Sheung Wan, one of the earliest settled places by the British, and part of the Central and Western Heritage Trail, is rapidly turning into a dining hotspot and bustling shopping mecca. The same is true of Sai Ying Pun, an area once known for its small lanes and historical buildings.

Similarly in Kowloon, Sham Shui Po—Deep Water Pier in Cantonese—the peninsula’s commercial and industrial hub, is fast becoming a street-shopping mecca.

Talk about change—one has only to look upwards at the constantly changing skyline. Hong Kong has more skyscrapers than anywhere on the planet, with its notorious shoe-box apartments piled atop shopping malls piled atop subways stations. Then, two years ago, a giant wheel suddenly landed in the midst of all these shifting layers, giving Hong Kongers their own version of the London Eye: what a fantastical embellishment to this swathe of reclaimed land!

Not long after my initial arrival, my feet are in urgent need of pampering. I have never done so much city-walking before—so followed the lady handing out leaflets in one of the by-lanes to a third-floor cramped salon that offered reflexology massage. It’s not one of the cleanest experiences, but soon I will have my favorite places, where I take visiting friends and family when they, too, are in need of some down time…

Travel writer Paul Theroux has said that travel is a state of mind. In Hong Kong, the fear is you may never get out of that state… No sooner have you taken in the brightly colored tong laus (19th-century tenement buildings) than you find yourself in a murky alley full of yan ching mei (the essence of humanity). It can be difficult to take in the sounds of traffic and never-ending foot-falls, the smells of traffic fumes, cigarette smoke, raw meat and fish…and not feel overwhelmed.

Making my way around this cacophonous Island city, I pick up many lessons, two of which stand out:

  1. Silence is golden—best exemplified by unblinking people in malls, the surging and pushy crowds of the MTR, and the mute cashiers at general stores.
  2. Survival is an art. You have to learn how you deal with the guttural rudeness of fruit sellers in wet markets, the pestering sales-peddlers of “genuine fake” watches and purses on Nathan Road, and the “No cheap” snide comments of shop assistants in brand showrooms once they notice you’re from the Sub-continent. After a while, I begin to comprehend the “I stay in a beach-side villa” hand-flick of long-time expat residents, the “couldn’t care less” attitude of locals, the jostling Mainlanders on weekly shopping sprees, and the hired helpers laying siege to open spaces and parks on weekends.

I shadow a friend as she navigates past umbrella-poking pavement walkers; impervious-to-others, 70+ matrons pushing carts laden with used cardboard boxes; cell-phone strollers; feisty old ladies twirling to “Sugar Sugar Honey Honey” in a neighborhood park; and Rambo seniors swimming in the cold waters of Hung Hom Bay. Little by little, I am getting in step.

It’s food!

A member of my writing group suggested I should spice up my writings rather literally, with more mentions of food—not a difficult task when it comes to Hong Kong, which entices its visitors into alleys, eateries and restaurants with its distinctive smells.

It is not long before I learn there is more to Chinese cuisine than my favorite dishes of Indian-Chinese Manchurian chicken, chow mien and hot & sour soup. In my various gastronomic quests on both sides of the Island, I discover finger-licking fish balls, succulent dim sum dishes, as well as slurpy wanton noodles, at the cha chaan ten (traditional Chinese eateries). In time my list of favorites comes to include:

Food is a kind of entry point into the mysteries of Hong Kong, the key to pinning down some of its elusiveness. I learn what people consider to be esoteric or exotic (e.g., snake soup, whole pigs or fish varieties) and become aware of the apparently important need to distinguish between dim sum, the word for a traditional lunch or brunch where one eats small portions of food served with tea, and dumplings, consisting of small pieces of dough wrapped around various fillings (meat, veggies or even fruit). Dumplings are not dim sum but a dim sum dish.

By making the restaurant rounds—from Michelin starred restaurants. to neighborhood open-air food stalls or dai pai dong, to book cafes and fast food outlets—I come to know parts of Hong Kong I might not otherwise have encountered.

Most important of all, I discover The Toothpick: the fine art of flicking food particles from in between tooth gaps, after one finishes eating. It is fascinating to watch all the Chinese people immediately reach for a toothpick at the end of every meal. A friend always carries a packet of toothpicks because “some eating places do not place it along with sauces and the salt-and-pepper set.” Now I, too, am addicted and my mouth craves that instant gratification.

its-food-hk

* * *

In John le Carré‘s The Honorable Schoolboy, it is said at one point that “when you leave Hong Kong it ceases to exist.” That was not my experience. After a seven-year stay, Hong Kong never ceases to exist for me.

To be continued…

* * *

Thank you, Indra! As always, you bring a unique lens to your travels and expat experiences. I wonder, does Hong Kong seem familiar in some ways to you because of its British colonial heritage, not unlike India’s? —ML Awanohara

Indra Chopra is a writer/blogger passionate about travel and curious about cultures and people. Her present status is that of an accidental expat writing to relive moments in countries wherever she sets home with her husband. With over twenty years of writing experience Indra has contributed to Indian, Middle Eastern publications and online media. She blogs at TravTrails

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of posts from The Displaced Nation, and much much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits: Opening visual: Airplane photo and India photo via Pixabay. Other photos supplied or else downloaded from Pixabay.

REVERSE CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: To cope with the transition back to your native land, consider vlogging!

reverse-culture-shock-morgan
Transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol consults with recent repat Morgan Carver Richards about the best tools for fixing a bad case of reverse culture shock syndrome.

Hello, Displaced Nationers! I wonder if you’ve already had the pleasure of encountering the videos made by YouTuber Morgan Carver Richards? If not, you’ve been missing out…

Morgan spent four years in Dubai because of her husband’s flying career and returned to her native United States in January of this year. She has been posting hilarious videos on YouTube as a way of coping with the effects of reverse culture shock.

Here are some of my favorite sound bites from the series:

“Why are there so many cereals?!”

“This doctor bill is like 750 dollars! All she did was look at my leg and give me some Ibuprofen!”

“Kids, they don’t have bus nannies here. You’re on your own out there.”

“No, you cannot walk to the grocery store by yourself. This is not Dubai. Do you want Mommy to go to jail?”

“There are signs outside the primary school saying you can’t take your guns inside. There is NO WAY I’m the only person who finds that odd!”

Originally from South Carolina, Morgan had her own career as a flight attendant for several years. That was before the “lavish Vegas wedding of the shotgun variety” that took her to Dubai and the children that followed. Her career in the airlines industry, combined with her perpetual stir-craziness (hello, itchy feet!), has inspired several books:

morgan-carver-richards-books
Something all of Morgan’s works have in common, including her repatriation videos, is that she likes to make people laugh. Why don’t you see for yourself by checking out Morgan’s very first repat video, “Gardeners, Maids, Savages”:

Despite her skill with the video camera, Morgan claims to be somewhat behind the curve when it comes to adapting to new technologies. But she has no regrets because she thinks that growing up with social media would have made her early life less fulfilling.

Food for thought…

And now let’s find out what Morgan has packed in her reverse culture shock toolbox…

* * *

Hi, Morgan, and welcome to Culture Shock Toolbox—or in your case, REVERSE Culture Shock Toolbox. Where on our beautiful planet have you lived?

I spent four years in the United Arab Emirates and 27 years in the United States where I lived in Phoenix, Arizona; Rock Hill, South Carolina; and Nashville, Tennessee.

Any memorable cultural transition stories? Did you ever put your foot in your mouth?

I have put my foot in my mouth several times, mostly when in the United States. I feel I wrongly assume too often that other people have the same knowledge base on the United Arab Emirates as I have. It easily makes the conversation go from friendly to savage.

How did you handle that situation?

I’m actively working on handling these situations in a more tolerable manner. I’m slowly but surely learning to keep my conversations to a happy medium instead of overreacting. I am still developing the tools to convey my experiences in a way that helps people understand cultural differences and discern reality from what is reported on Fox News (sorry, Fox News, you’re savage).

Can my fellow Americans discern reality from what is reported on Fox News?

“Why can’t my fellow Americans discern reality from what is reported on Fox News?” Morgan Carver Richards grapples with reverse culture shock.

Can you think of any culture shock situations, reverse or otherwise, you’ve handled with finesse?

I handled the relocation to Dubai from the US with surprising finesse compared with my move back to the US, which has had a finesse level of 0%. I think it was easier moving to the UAE because I went in knowing that I would have to learn a new culture and system. Returning to the US I wrongly assumed I would be accustomed to the culture because it’s my home country.

You illustrate some of your reverse culture shock moments in your hilarious YouTube videos. I gather the transition has been rough?

Yes, reverse culture shock has been powerful for me. I know other people repatriate more smoothly, but it wasn’t the case for me. The biggest source of counter culture shock I struggle with still is the less personal approach to daily interactions and the focus on privacy instead of the strong community feel and strong communication aspect that were a part of life in Dubai.

What has helped you deal with reverse culture shock?

Publishing my repatriation videos has led to an outpouring of support, positive feedback, laughter and understanding from other repatriates. I now see that, although each person has their own unique repatriation story, I am not alone with a lot of the feelings and experiences I’ve been having. I cannot stress how incredibly helpful and amazing that experience has been for me.

Did you hear that, expats? Make sure you include an iPhone or video camera in your toolbox. It may come in handy once you have to go home.

vlogging-the-answer

Finally, because some of our readers are still expats, can I ask: are there any tools you found particularly helpful in adjusting to life in the UAE?

My best advice is to take your time and check it out before you move. Don’t go into it with a bad attitude or else your experiences will reflect that attitude. Develop a few strong relationships early in the transition. My few strong relationships were what held me together in my new environment when I had a rough time or a bad day.

Thank you so much, Morgan! Building a new community is essential for handling cultural transitions, which may be why repatriation is so hard—it’s a lonely experience. But vlogging sounds like an excellent way of connecting with others who are going through something similar. We constantly need to remind ourselves: we’re all in this together.

* * *

So, Displaced Nationers, do you have any of your own repat stories to share?

To keep in touch with Morgan, I suggest you subscribe to her YouTube channel, check out her author site, like her Facebook page, and/or follow her on Twitter.

Well, I hope this has you “fixed” until next month.

Until then, cheers! Prost! Santé!

H.E. Rybol is a TCK and the author of Culture Shock: A Practical Guide and Culture Shock Toolbox and Reverse Culture Shock. She loves animals, piano, yoga and being outdoors. You can find her on Twitter, Linkedin, Goodreads, and her author site.  

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation—and much, much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits: All photos are from Pixabay.

THE ACCIDENTAL EXPAT: A stopover in Toronto, the world’s most multicultural city

THE ACCIDENTAL EXPAT
Columnist Indra Chopra is back. Born in India, Indra embraced the life of a trailing spouse to become a globetrotter. In this post she shares her impressions of Toronto, a place that arouses her curiosity and makes her feel (somewhat) at home. ML Awanohara

In my last column, I promised to deliver the Hong Kong chapter of our diasporic shenanigans, beginning in 2008—but the present keeps intruding on my thoughts.

This summer I am visiting Canada for the fourth time. Every visit has been an exposé on the resilience of immigrants waiting for the “turning point.” They start anew not knowing what is around the bend.

“Canada is a place of infinite promise.” —John Maynard Keynes

English economist John Maynard Keynes once said he’d prefer emigrating to Canada over the USA. It’s perhaps a good thing he never experienced driving along Don Mills Road in Toronto…

The morning-evening views of humming cars and twinkling lights of Highway 401—said to be the busiest highway in North America (around half a million vehicles travel along it per day)—does not lull me into a poetic trance; I am too busy counting heads. The car lights represent the people from all over the world who have made this land their home, and the cars…their search for permanency.

I wonder how many of the immigrants enjoyed their moves, whether it was voluntary or forced, under happy circumstances or tragic.

Not all that long ago Canada was the land of Niagara Falls, polar bears and Arctic wilderness. The steady trickling in of immigrants and other displaced nationers has provided an opportunity to fill in the blanks, the empty spaces, with men, women and children looking for places to plant new roots.

The human surge continues; new faces keep appearing from corners of the world that have been stretched to their limits; and there is talk of getting in still more.

“It is easy to get a Canadian permanent resident card,” state a young couple from India. They willingly chose this option for a hassle-free life and the chance to be accepted into the Indo-Canadian diaspora that somehow lessens nostalgia for the homeland.
canada-then-and-now

“Toronto is a very multicultural city, a place of immigrants, like my parents.” —R&B artist Melanie Fiona

I take the elevator down from the 32nd floor of one of the city’s high rises, stopping at different floors. Soon I am joined by African Canadians, Asian Canadians, Indo Canadians: different colors, different masks. I ask an Asian lady flaunting a diamond nose-pin whether she is from India. Her answer? “From Bangladesh. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh—we’re all the same; we wear the same dresses and speak the same languages.” I agree—it’s time I shed my parochial attitude.

A walk in the nearby mall and it’s a mini-world of myriad tongues and dress: hijab-covered heads, Indian tunic tops, tank tops and short shorts… I wonder how they are all adjusting, what makes them leave their familiar environments to embark on a journey to an unknown land.

“It’s relatives and friends who entice us with stories of luxury, which seldom are true,” they would probably tell me. And, once here, they do not want to return having used their savings but must honor their promises to help finance parents and other family member to join them in hopes of a better life, not only in terms of opportunities but also basic amenities.

Of course, some want to return to their native lands, such as the Trinidad-born banker who tells me: “I cannot see myself retiring here. It is too cold.” In any event, she has no choice but to stay in Toronto for the time being, having enrolled her children in city schools. She thinks they will be misfits in their own country if they leave mid-way. She will wait for them to complete college before she decides on her next move, she says.

There are the lone movers, the refugees fleeing torture, intimidation, famine, and poverty. Canadians recently opened their minds and hearts to 25,000 Syrian refugees and are committed to helping them resettle in their country.

I see plenty of my compatriots: young men and women from Punjab and other Indian states. In 2011 Toronto was favored destination for Indians, with no or few limits on letting them work. Some are even doing manual labor—which they certainly would have felt below their dignity in their own country. Many are now investing in properties and enjoying affluent lifestyles—calculating how this compares to where they might have been had they stayed in India.

“The fact that over 50 per cent of the residents of Toronto are not from Canada, that is always a good thing, creatively, and for food especially.” —Anthony Bourdain

Toronto is the most multicultural city in the world, with more than 140 dialects spoken other than French and English. It is nicknamed the “city of neighbourhoods,”; some of the more famous include:

We are driven around Brampton—aka Sikhland or Bangland because so many South Asian migrants have made it their home. It’s a suburban city in Greater Toronto. Many find it easier to settle in if they can live in pockets of ethnicity rather than having to navigate new neighborhoods.

I read about “white flight”, a term that describes the pattern by which early settlers from England to Canada were replaced first by Europeans and then by Asians, Africans, Arabs…a never-drying stream.

“In all of this, the mighty god Krishna moves, increasingly troubled by his lack of relevancy in this alien land.” —Gary Dickerson, about the Indo-Canadian film Masala (1991)

I attend a Hindu prayer gathering (puja) at a relative’s house; and for two hours I am transported to a gurudwara in New Delhi. My reverie is broken when I hear two ladies whispering—not in Punjabi but in Canadian-accented English. Where am I?

The kirtana (call-and-response style religious song or chant) that take place every weekend are a way to keep the umbilical cord intact. One can talk Indian politics, stay connected with friends, and expose children to Indian culture. Neighborhoods are thereby transformed into extensions of the pind (Indian village), with its internal rules and laws intact.

India was/is a reservoir for brides and grooms for Canadian-based Indians, until the younger generation, born and brought up in Toronto, insists on the much-needed change of deciding their own fate by finding their own partners—a source of pride in their adopted land.

A friend recounts his first few days in the country when his wife refused to step out of the house even though her relatives, parents were living next door. The wife was missing her daily routine of long chats with friends, the shared housework and space. Eventually she succumbed to the “good life”; and now with her children married and settled, she wonders how she could have been so “foolish in wanting to return to Punjab.”

Living an expat life can be full of pitfalls or else promises, depending on one’s family life and their expectations.

I meet up with an Indian lady who started her own spice business supplying to Toronto’s Indian grocery stores, first in her neighborhood, then in greater Toronto, and now to neighboring cities and provinces. Her business grew with support from her husband and children. She says:

“When I came to Canada, newly married, I did not plan to sit in the house, and at the same time, I did not want to take up a nine-to-five job. A few experiments at self-business and finally the right idea came. Fifteen years back most of us would carry our spices from visits back home. In time it became tedious, and this is when I hit upon the idea of starting a business with something I was familiar with. We source spices from India and different countries and package and sell them in Canada.”

At other end of the spectrum is a friend’s relative, who has been slogging away since the time she set foot in Toronto forty years back. The ashen visage says it all: having been married at a young age, she had no idea what she was getting into. The husband was of no help; the only silver lining there were no relatives or in-laws around. “It was not easy,” she says.

She took up a job in a bank for financial stability—and with children to take care of as well, it was a balancing act between work and home responsibilities. Years have not changed her routine. She still gets up early morning to complete chores before leaving for work and returning home to prepare dinner, an endlessly exhausting double burden.

I see the younger generation, my children included, who know what it means to globetrot, to assimilate to new surroundings and find their place under the Canadian sun. A Hindu girl lets drop that she eats beef in answer to last year’s “beef killings” in India (an incident where a Hindu mob killed a Muslim family for slaughtering a cow and consuming its meat).
india-diaspora-toronto

* * *

Whether an immigrant from Europe, South East Asia, Far East, Middle East…the narratives are similar, voiced with a shuttered look as if to say:

“We are here, this is what matters, not how we got here or why we came.”

A walk on Toronto’s streets and neighborhoods and the international flavor of Canada devours you. I think of my own journey and where I would like it to end…

* * *

Thank you, Indra, for sharing your thoughts on Canada’s, and the world’s, most multicultural city. From your description, I think Toronto must be the closest physical counterpart our planet has to The Displaced Nation site! —ML Awanohara

Indra Chopra is a writer/blogger passionate about travel and curious about cultures and people. Her present status is that of an accidental expat writing to relive moments in countries wherever she sets home with her husband. With over twenty years of writing experience Indra has contributed to Indian, Middle Eastern publications and online media. She blogs at TravTrails

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of posts from The Displaced Nation, and much much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits: Opening visual: Airplane photo and India photo via Pixabay. Second visual: Photos of Canadian wilderness, polar bear and Niagagra Falls via Pixabay; and night and morning photos of Don Mills Road (supplied). Third visual: (first row) 2013 Taste of the Danforth, by synestheticstrings via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0), and Chinatown mural via Pixabay; (second row) Immigrant, by Taymaz Valley via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); (third row) India Bazaar – Toronto, by The Lost Wanderer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0), and Lord Dufferin Public School Students Watch MLK Day Performance, by US Embassy Canada via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Last visual: (clockwise from top left) The kulffi kid (Little India, Toronto), by sakura via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Toronto Temple, by shedairyproduct via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Sacred Hindu Cows, by Anthony Easton via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); and Hindu Markings on a Van, also by Anthony Eaton.

REVERSE CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats, what kinds of tools do you need if you decide to repatriate?

Reverse Culture Shock RosesTransitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol is already having a constructive 2016: she is about to publish a second book, on reverse culture shock.

Reverse Culture Shock_coverHello, Displaced Nationers! This month, I have a very special preview for you! On March 30th, my book Reverse Culture Shock will be released! Unlike Culture Shock: A Practical Guide, this is not a how-to book. It’s a collection of adapted blog posts including some previously unpublished material.

Dealing with reverse culture shock is a continuously evolving process that requires constant adjustments, reflection and introspection. This collection is meant to bring you food for thought and give you a little nudge to ease a difficult transition.

Here’s an adapted excerpt, just for you… Even if you’re currently an expat, I hope you enjoy! Someday you, too, may face this phenomenon, if you decide to repatriate.

* * *

When I moved back from California to Europe, I spent the summer pruning trees, rosebushes and anything else I could find. It provided comfort in a way nothing else did. I got to be outdoors, didn’t have to interact, nobody asked me any questions or commented on how ‘American’ I sounded. I could just be. Quietly, peacefully.

What I needed the most was a set of gardening tools.

Yep, reverse culture shock was a doozy.

Here’s the thing about reverse culture shock: everything feels familiar and completely different at the same time. And no matter how hard you try to reconcile everything, it makes you feel like a puzzle put together wrong. Everything sort of fits but doesn’t.

Of course, intellectually, you reason with yourself. Your brain explains that both you and the place have changed, so what you’re feeling is natural. Meanwhile your insides are screaming bloody murder. That’s what it was like for me, anyway.

There is an aspect of mourning involved. You have to let go of the notion of home as a physical or geographical place (if that’s what it was to begin with) and of the idea that operating within a comfort zone is how things should be. You need to redefine what home and comfort mean to you.

And here’s the biggie: letting go of who you were before you left to incorporate the person you became while you were gone and see how both now fit into a new identity within that familiar environment that feels alien. It’s mind-boggling and the whole thing is a process.

The puzzle of home

Europe had changed…and I’d changed as well.

When I got back from the US, Europe had changed: there was a new currency (hello, Euro!), there were new streets, Starbucks and Subways had sprouted up all over the place, the use of language had changed, to name a few. For example, “Zähflüssiger Verkehr” had become “stop and go” and my French-speaking friends and colleagues said things like “c’est fun!”

Of course, I had changed as well. Not only in my eyes but also in the eyes of other people who kept reminding me that I wasn’t quite European anymore with a steady refrain of “You’re SO American!”

  • Accent: I had an American accent and naturally, people who knew me before I lived in America kept saying “you sound so American.” I understand the reaction, of course, but the effect was one of alienation all the same. What I heard was “you don’t sound European”. Which was fine too, except that I was in Europe trying to figure out how to fit back in after four years of being away.
  • Language: I couldn’t express myself the way I wanted to in my native languages, which can feel alarming. People kept correcting me, pointing out that I was speaking weirdly, which had a distancing effect on me and on them as well. I wasn’t the way they remembered and these new aspects of me were disconcerting for them.
  • Laugh: I was told I had an American laugh, whatever that means.
  • Attitude/ways of thinking/seeing things: I had developed a new approach and attitude towards problem solving, thinking and managing everyday life. That attitude was also pointed out to me as being American. But it wasn’t something I could shake, so living with that perspective in Europe can be alienating on multiple levels.

I spent four years becoming aware of my “Europeanness” to come back to a Europe that felt alien to me and where people kept and still keep pointing out my “Americanness”.

I’ve come to accept that I’m just in between. Someone once said to me that it’s like sitting on a fence: you can see both sides but that fence just isn’t very comfortable.

Over time though, we get comfortable being uncomfortable. That’s the good news!
Just in between

* * *

Readers who are or have been repats, hopefully this has you “fixed” until next month, when I’ll be back with one of my culture shock interviews. In future I plan to interview some repatriates as well.

Until then, here’s to discomfort! Cheers! Prost! Santé!

H.E. Rybol is a TCK and the author of Culture Shock: A Practical Guide and Culture Shock Toolbox and the soon-to-be-released Reverse Culture Shock. She loves animals, piano, yoga and being outdoors. You can find her on Twitter, Linkedin, Goodreads, and her author site.  

STAY TUNED for more fab posts.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation—and much, much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related post:

Photo credits: All photos are from Pixabay.

Wonderlanded with Dr. Karen V., scholar of linguistics and creator of a comic strip series on expat life

Welcome back to the Displaced Nation’s Wonderlanded series, being held in gratitude for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which turns 150 this year and, despite this advanced age, continues to stimulate and reassure many of us who have chosen to lead international, displaced, “through the looking glass” lives.

This month we travel
d
o
w
n
the hole with Karen V., a Spaniard who describes herself as an expat, linguist and skeptic. Her sociolinguistic adventures began ten years ago when she moved to Berlin, followed by Zürich, Madrid, Savonlinna and most recently Hamburg.

She speaks Spanish, German and English fluently and can communicate in French and Finnish.

But if Karen is in no uncertain terms a scholar, the only thing I knew about her before eliciting her participation in our Wonderlanded series was that she produces a comic strip series called “Expat Gone Foreign,” which depicts the adventures of a black-haired girl called tXc. The series—which Karen describes as “a graphic journey through culture clashes, social awkwardness, language-related phenomena and life itself”—has its own Website and products. It has attracted many social media followers.

In my backings and forthings with Karen for today’s post, she assured me that tXc is her (though her eyes aren’t nearly as big), and all of the anecdotes in the strips are real situations that have happened to her over the years.

That said, Karen assured me that today we would be wonderlanded with her, not with tXc—that is, until the very end, when tXc will make a special appearance.

Also, the phantasmagoria of images we will see during our journey through Karen’s wonderland were created by her, a first for this series.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to jump down the hole after Dr. V. Apart from anything else, I’m curious to hear her vision of Alice as a manga character.

* * *

Karen: Thank you, ML, and greetings, Displaced Nation readers. Before we begin our plunge, here is a little more background on me. I was born and raised in a small city in Southern Spain and became interested in languages and foreign cultures at a young age, mostly due to the interaction with the many tourists who visit the region and expats who live there. My curiosity would peak whenever my family and I went camping along the Andalusian and Portuguese coast during the summer holidays. There was something different about the lobster-looking Brits abundantly smeared in sun lotion holding their sangrías with little umbrellas, or the sock-and-sandals-wearing Germans sitting in the shade reading those huge newspapers and filling every crossword book. But there was more to it than their mere appearance. They spoke, gesticulated and interacted in a different manner than the locals; and it seemed to me that their language was just a doorstep into a whole new microcosmos of proxemics, social norms and unfamiliar mindsets. An intriguing foreignness. As I attempted to interact with these outsiders, I realized I relished the challenge of having to decipher sociolinguistic puzzles with pieces that were different than the ones I was used to playing with.

Eventually that curiosity led to becoming widely interested in languages and foreign cultures, getting into the field of linguistics and ultimately, stepping off my doorstep into the unknown…into the proverbial rabbit hole.

…after a few minutes it seemed quite natural to Alice to find herself talking quite familiarly with [the Dodo, the Duck, the Eaglet, the Lory, the Mouse, etc.], as if she had known them all her life.

When I first relocated to Berlin for university, I felt as if four million citizens were rowing in a boat simultaneously, all of them sailing in the same direction. That said, I don’t recollect my first experience of the city as being disorienting. Rather, I was relieved and exhilarated, as if I had finally gained the required space to explore and develop myself. My stranger self in the company of other million strangers, I felt at ease amidst complete unfamiliarity in the vibrant big city. The new everyday life was packed with novelty, strangeness and excitement. A mixture of emerging patterns waiting to be understood. A prophylactic change against stagnation.

Cheshire Cat to Alice: “[W]e’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

On my first day of university, I met a Finnish girl who seemed overwhelmed by the academic system and referred to it as pure chaos—a statement I didn’t understand until I moved to Finland four years later. Whereas I was utterly pleased by the German orderliness, she conveyed the impression of being rather irritated. It was a clear illustration of two individuals whose accustomed grounds were being torn apart—in this case, in two opposite directions; an example of how the societal life design in which we grew up outlines our boundaries of normality and acceptability.

Alice to the Cheshire Cat: “It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”

After having lived in the same country for the most part of your life, it’s fair to assume that moving abroad involves a great deal of discordance coupled with an unsettling feeling of disconnection from the world. However, this wasn’t the case of my pioneer relocation abroad, but rather the trial I experienced when I temporarily had to move back to my home country after the first year in Berlin. It was a reverse culture clash and probably one of the hardest transitions. Returning to Spain meant bringing back the personal development and acculturation that had occurred during my time in Berlin and trying to fit it in the home environment, an environment so deeply familiar and yet that now seemed uncanny in so many aspects. I realised no one could possibly come back and pick up as the same person one was before leaving. Navigating the new set of circumstances meant facing the original issues that fostered the decision to leave in the first place. My solution was to try to recreate “wonderland” around me. I surrounded myself with German exchange students and spotted the local stores where I could get imported products. I learnt to bake dark rye bread with pumpkin and sunflower seeds—brunch became a Sunday ritual in my shared flat. I would wake up every morning listening to Berlin radio stations, watch Stromberg at night and skype with the friends I left behind. It worked until the time was right to venture into Wonderland again.

Alice to herself: “I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit-hole—and yet—and yet—it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life!”

The first time I got sick abroad was during my first week in Switzerland. Patients in Switzerland receive their medical bills by post after being treated, and I still didn’t have any written proof that I was living there. I had to wander around Zürich for hours until I found a doctor who was kind enough to deal with my feverish cold. Unsurprising fact: he was also an expat.

Recipe for a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

I would serve seafood for the main course and chocolate chip cookie cake for dessert followed by lychee cocktails. I would invite American filmmaker David Lynch; English composer Michael Nyman; German-born Swiss literary giant Hermann Hesse; linguists Vyvyan Evans and Edward Sapir; Vanessa Yves (the heroine of the American horror series Penny Dreadful); German author of fantasy and horror E.T.A. Hoffmann; Oscar Wilde’s gothic hero Dorian Gray, and my good and displaced friend Ginger. I can’t think of a better combination of people for throwing a tea party. 🙂

Alice muttering to herself: “It’s really dreadful, the way all the creatures argue. It’s enough to drive one crazy!”

Since Germany has become my permanent place of residence and I have adapted to its interactional patterns, one of the things I struggle with when I visit Spain is talking to people. It takes me a couple of days to adjust to the fast conversational pace, the high volume, the close proximity, the somewhat intrusive physical contact and the fact that being interrupted doesn’t mean rudeness but cooperation and interest on the listener’s part. Likewise, many a time have I returned to Germany after my holidays in Spain and noticed people would be staring at me for being the loudest person in the room, so…back to keeping it down a notch.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

I find extremely interesting the way some people change fundamentally when they switch from one language to another. It’s not just the linguistic code, but also their voice register, their body language and even their emotions and opinions; as if one weren’t the same individual anymore but had rather suddenly shifted into a new identity. I have been told to manifest this behaviour a couple of times and I was skeptical at first, so I watched myself in mute videos to ultimately confirm their hypothesis.

Advice for those who have only just stepped through the looking glass

If you have ventured into the rabbit hole, there’s no turning back. The displacement or dépaysement (fr. the feeling of being disoriented or not at home, in a foreign or different place) will be recurrent, and it’s something you have to come to terms with. Finding yourself geographically rootless, a part of everywhere and nowhere, can result in restlessness and distress. I dare say it’s not an exclusive phenomenon of international relocation, but moving to a foreign country definitely enhances its scope. Take it from me and others who have been to Wonderland and back: one gradually turns into a patchwork of identities, a broken jigsaw, a mixture of places and cultures, an odd individual made of bits and pieces from everywhere and hence nowhere.

But there are always two sides to the coin. Should you experience any sense of bereavement resulting from your leaving, consider all the independence, freedom and professional as well as personal development you have gained by doing so. Picture yourself in a parallel universe in which you had never left and examine that hypothetical self. Would you rather be that person? I don’t think so. You are becoming the best version of yourself, embracing life at its fullest from its many a different angle, participating in a conscious awakening.

As Lewis Carroll writes at the end of Alice’s adventures:

“So she sat on with closed eyes, and half believed herself in Wonderland, though she knew she had but to open them again, and all would change to dull reality.”

Bonus: Alice as manga character

The cartoonist in me envisions a black-haired Alice who, after having spent a while in Wonderland, crawls back to the surface wielding a large scythe and haunts citizens for explanations as to what happened. She eschews the proper lady stylings of her literary counterpart, having both a voracious appetite and a temper.

Ta–dah! tXc is here!

92 Wonderlanded P

* * *

Thank you, Karen! Being wonderlanded with you was…beyond curious! I have to confess, there were a few times when I wondered whether you had become a creature of wonderland yourself…but I of course mean that as a compliment! Readers, any responses to Karen’s story? How about to her visuals and to the glorious appearance of tXc as Alice in Wonderland (or should that be Expatland)? Please leave in the comments. And don’t forget. If you want to keep in touch with tXc’s expat adventures, be sure to visit Expat Gone Foreign site, like the comic strip series on Facebook, and follow along on Twitter. ~ML

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Wonderlanded with Rosie Milne, Asian Books blogger and author of a new historical novel about two early expat wives

Alice goes through the looking glass[https://www.flickr.com/photos/centralasian/5485576189/], illustration by John Tenniel, uploaded to Flickr by Central Asian (CC BY 2.0)https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/; book cover art; Rosie Milne in Singapore with her papier-mâché Alice (supplied).

Alice goes through the looking glass, illustration by John Tenniel, uploaded to Flickr by Central Asian (CC BY 2.0); book cover art; Rosie Milne in Singapore with her papier-mâché Alice (supplied).

Welcome back to the Displaced Nation’s Wonderlanded series, being held in gratitude for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which turns 150 this year and, despite this advanced age, continues to stimulate and reassure many of us who have chosen to lead international, displaced, “through the looking glass” lives.

This month we travel
d
o
w
n
the hole with Rosie Milne, an Englishwoman who has lived in various places, mostly within Asia, but right now can be found in Singapore.

I first discovered Rosie Milne through an article she worte for Telegraph Expat about romantic novelists who’ve been inspired by their expat surroundings. I noticed in her bio blurb that she runs the Asian Books Blog.

Then recently I had the pleasure of her getting in touch with me to feature a description of the Displaced Nation for the Blog’s Sunday Post.

As Rosie and I began backing and forthing by email, I spontaneously decided it might be fun to be wonderlanded with her.

Now, having spent many years living in Asia myself, Singapore, where Rosie lives now, isn’t exactly my idea of wonderland. I know it comes out tops for expat destinations on various surveys, but for me Singapore is a nice place to visit (great food and shopping) but for living? Much too safe and predictable; Asia Lite.

But Rosie has lived all over Asia, including in my former home of Tokyo (Asia Heavy!). She has also thought deeply about what it’s like for women to “pass through the looking glass” into Asia, having just completed a novel, Olivia and Sophia: a fictionalized account of the adventures of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore, as seen through the eyes of his first and second wives. (It’s due out in November from Monsoon Books.)

We’ll get to read a couple of excerpts from that work in the next post, but first let’s find out what it’s like to be wonderlanded with Rosie!

* * *

Rosie Milne: Thank you, ML, and greetings, Displaced Nation readers. To give you a little more of my background: I was born in London. I worked in publishing there before moving to New York, where I wrote my first novel, How To Change Your Life, about an editor of self-help books trying to follow the advice in a self-help book.

I then moved to Hong Kong where I wrote my second novel, Holding the Baby, about four sisters with differing attitudes to motherhood—one of them, unable to have biological children, adopts from China.

I then had short spells in Sydney and Tokyo, before moving to my current home, Singapore, where I wrote my new novel, Olivia & Sophia, which features two early forerunners of a type of modern expat woman: the trailing spouse.

“I don’t understand you,” said Alice. “It’s dreadfully confusing!”

In Tokyo language was impenetrable—I did try to learn, but more-or-less never got beyond being able to give my address. There was a big earthquake within a few days of my arrival. There were young adults on the streets dressed as cartoonish characters. I had my first, and last, taste of sashimi chicken – the most revolting food I ever tasted….

Lost in Tokyoland. Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Untitled[https://www.flickr.com/photos/bernatagullo/89651149/], by Bernat Agullo via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/]; Japanese city at night[https://www.flickr.com/photos/photones/6471199389/], by Takuma Kimura via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Untitled[https://www.flickr.com/photos/kylehase/3458873955/], by Kyle Hasegawa via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/]; 鶏のたたき (chicken sashimi),[https://www.flickr.com/photos/spilt-milk/4578639904/] by yoppy via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/].

Lost in Tokyoland. Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Untitled, by Bernat Agullo via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Japanese city at night, by Takuma Kimura via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Untitled, by Kyle Hasegawa via Flickr (CC BY 2.0);
鶏のたたき
(chicken sashimi), by yoppy via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

“Consider anything, only don’t cry!” said the Queen.

I think expats, amongst the luckiest people on the planet, should resist succumbing to pools of tears.

“No,” said Alice. “I don’t even know what a Mock Turtle is.”

I am quite often wary about fish, but usually, when I try the dish, or fish, in question, I enjoy it.

Recipe for a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

I would serve vodka and gherkins. As to the guest list…how about Jesus, and Richard Dawkins. The Buddha and Darwin. The Ayatollah Khomeini and Einstein…should make for interesting conversation, although language might be a bit of a problem.

Language might be a bit of a problem at Rosie Milne's tea party. Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Ice cocktail[https://pixabay.com/en/ice-cocktail-glass-drink-alcohol-681547/] via Pixabay; Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Illustrator: Rackham, 1907) The Mad Tea-party[https://www.flickr.com/photos/43021516@N06/4382428537/], by Special Collections Toronto via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/]; Sad pickle[https://www.flickr.com/photos/healthserviceglasses/3382360977/], by John Bell via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/]. Insets: Albert Einstein during a lecture in Vienna in 1921[https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Albert_Einstein_1921_by_F_Schmutzer.jpg]; Ayatollah Khomeini[https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mehdi_Bazargan_Ayatollah_Khomeini.jpg], by Alain DeJean—both images via Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0)[https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en].

Language might be a bit of a problem at Rosie Milne’s “tea” party. Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Ice cocktail via Pixabay; Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Illustrator: Rackham, 1907) The Mad Tea-party, by Special Collections Toronto via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Sad pickle, by John Bell via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Insets: Albert Einstein during a lecture in Vienna in 1921; Ayatollah Khomeini, by Alain DeJean—both images via Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0).

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

I am terrible at giving advice.

Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible…

If I hadn’t lived in Singapore I doubt I’d have written Olivia & Sophia—an account of the life of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore, told through the fictionalised diaries of his two wives. Olivia & Sophia predate Alice, but they must often have felt wonderlanded. In an era when the voyage from Europe to Asia took anything up to ten months, when letters were the only means of communication with Home, when Europeans died like flies in the East, their sojourns abroad saw them fall down the rabbit hole far more comprehensively than any modern expat. I hoped to use the novel to explore parallels between an early age of globalisation, and our own age, between the effects of a financial crisis then, and of the recent crises in the global economy, between the lives of expats then, and expats now, and so on…

Bonus: Alice as manga character

Why not make Alice Japanese? She could cultivate kawaii. And the white rabbit could be kawaii, too. The setting could be Tokyo, the rabbit hole could be the Tokyo subway…

Photo credits: Tumbling down the rabbit hole…[https://www.flickr.com/photos/luxtonnerre/2482551243/], by LuxTonnerre via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/]; Pink bunny-shaped roadblock (Narita)[https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pink_bunny-shaped_roadblock.jpg] via Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0)[https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en]. Inset: Through the Rabbit Hole[https://www.flickr.com/photos/ipdegirl/8197732984/], by Jenni C via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/].

Photo credits: Tumbling down the rabbit hole…, by LuxTonnerre via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Pink bunny-shaped roadblock (Narita) via Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0). Inset: Through the Rabbit Hole, by Jenni C via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

* * *

Thank you, Rosie! Being wonderlanded with you was a curious experience, that’s for sure! Readers, please leave your responses to Rosie’s story in the comments. And stay tuned for her writing samples showing what it was like to be wonderlanded back in the day of Sir Stamford Raffles! ~ML

STAY TUNED for the next fab post: an example of how Rosie writes about a wonderlanded experience.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

For this peripatetic Sardinian writer who has settled down (for now) in Rome, a picture says…

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAGreetings, Displaced Nationers who are also photography buffs! “A Picture Says…” columnist James King is still away, so I am filling in again.

My guest this month is Angela Corrias, a well-traveled freelance writer who was born in the Italian island of Sardinia.

There’s a lot about Angela’s story that captivates me. For a start, there’s this photo of her on her Chasing the Unexpected blog’s About Me page, where she’s wearing a head scarf and looks Middle Eastern.

I had seen her “I heart my city” article on the National Geographic Traveler‘s site, which was all about Rome (where she now lives), so I assumed she was Italian… But was my assumption incorrect?

I also knew from her NatGeo article that she has traveled extensively and been an expat several times.

Hmm…that still doesn’t explain why she’s wearing a head scarf.

As I read more about Angela, I became even more intrigued. “[W]hat I like the most when I travel,” she writes on her About page, “is to dig deep into other countries’ culture, traditions, social customs and explore them in all their idiosyncrasies. I’ve always tried to avoid filling my posts with the basic information available by performing a simple Google search, and strived to publish more personal impressions instead.”

Something new I learned from her blog was that she is also a “wannabe photographer.”

It was at that point I knew that we had to feature Angela in “A Picture Says…,” and luckily she was “angel” enough to oblige!

Angela Corrias in Jiasalmer, India, one of the many stops in her travels (photo supplied)

In front of India’s Golden City, Jaisalmer, stands Angela Corrias, the woman who finds gold in all her travels. (Photo supplied)

* * *

Hi, Angela, and welcome to the Displaced Nation. I’d like to start by asking: where were you born, and when did you spread your wings to start traveling?
Hi, ML, and thank you for inviting me to take part in this column. And just to clear up your confusion, no, I’m not Middle Eastern. I was born in Sardinia, Italy’s second biggest island off the coast of Rome, and while my first international trip was to nearby France to visit relatives when I was just three years old, I’ve always considered my travel initiation to have been the first time I crossed the equator at the age of 13 to go to Brazil. It was my first long-haul flight and very first immersion in a culture different from mine. Maybe that’s why I’ve always had a soft spot for Brazil.

Now, I know from reading that Nat Geo article that, since reaching adulthood, you’ve traveled far and wide and also been an expat. What are some of the countries you’ve been to, and which have you actually lived in?
I’ve traveled extensively around Europe, living for two years each in Dublin and London. I’ve visited countries like Spain, France, Germany, Poland, Finland, Romania, Turkey and even Monte Carlo (once). In the Middle East, I’ve been to Lebanon, the UAE and Iran (many times). I’ve also spent a great deal of time in Asia. I lived for one year in China (Shanghai) and was able to travel around visiting countries like India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Singapore and Cambodia. And I mustn’t forget Brazil. I’ve traveled there many times with a quick jaunt to Argentina once—the only two countries I’ve visited in South America so far.

Ah, so THAT explains the head scarf! All those trips to Iran… Where are you living right now and why?
After almost ten years of the expat and nomadic lifestyle, I decided two years ago to come back to Italy and live in Rome. While I’m not ruling out completely another expat/nomadic experience, I’m liking it here so far. The city is extremely lively and constantly inspires me for writing and taking pictures. And it has an international airport, which makes it easy for me to book flights to any destination.

“To one that watches, everything is revealed.” —Italian proverb

Moving right along to the part we’ve all been waiting for: a chance to appreciate a few of your photos. Can you share with us three photos that capture some of your favorite memories of what has clearly been for you a “displaced” life of global travel? And for each photo, can you briefly tell us the memory that the photo captures, and why it remains special to you?
I’ll start with a photo that I took last year at the beautiful Imam Square at the center of Isfahan, Iran, a city that boasts an amazing history, impressive architecture and one the world’s most beautiful bazaars. Recently Iran has become for me one of the countries where I feel most at home—not just because locals actually mistake me for an Iranian and refuse to believe that I don’t speak Persian, but because I feel I can just unwind and enjoy what the country has to offer, from its stunning art to its beautiful and diverse nature to the warmth of its people.

The vast Iman Square in Iran, an important historical site. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

The vast Iman Square, an important historical site in Iran. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

Another place where I feel at home is my actual home, Sardinia. I left it some 17 years ago and go back far less than I would like to. I took this photo in the lovely coastal town of Bosa this past August, when I treated myself with a full 12-day stay after years of never visiting for more than a week. Sardinia is actually the kind of place where many people, including foreigners, can easily feel comfortable, and eventually settle down. A quiet, laid-back and relaxed lifestyle, its own cuisine, and a hospitable atmosphere—these are just a few of the features that can make anyone feel at home.

Fishing plays an important role in the economy of Basa, Sardinia. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

Fishing plays an important role in the economy of Basa, Sardinia. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

I took this third photo at a tea market in Shanghai, when living in China. For me it represents a truly traditional Chinese moment. Before moving to China, I had lived in Dublin for two years and in London for another two years, but neither of these cities made me feel I wanted to stay, and from the beginning I knew I would leave once I’d had the experience I was looking for. This changed in China. Despite the initial culture shock, once I started Chinese-language classes and began to speak with the locals, who are always very happy to see foreigners making the effort to learn their extremely difficult language, I instantly felt comfortable and as though I could settle for some time.

Sampling Chinese tea culture in Shanghai. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

Sampling Chinese tea culture in Shanghai. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

Wow, you’ve taken us from a vast square in Iran to an intimate setting of a tea house in Shanghai, which gives me a clear idea of the breadth of your travels. And that photo of the insides of a fishing boat in your native Sardinia—it seems so intimate. I can tell how much you know and love your homeland, or should I say “homeisland”?

“It all ends with biscuits and wine.” —Italian proverb

Having seen these first three photos, I expect it’s a bit of a tough choice, but which are the top three locations you’ve most enjoyed taking photos in—and can you offer us an example of each?
Everywhere I go, one of the first places I visit are the local markets. I took this photo at a market in the town of Roulos in Cambodia, near Siem Reap, where most vendors lay out their products and merchandise on the ground. Witnessing this feast of fruits, veggies and different local fish being sold by locals to locals was a great way to soak up the local atmosphere and sense of community.

The market in Roulos, Cambodia. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

Roadside market in Roulos, Cambodia (not far from Ankor Wat). Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

Iran is also a place where I very much enjoy taking photos. First of all, the people are always willing to be photographed and they often take it as a chance to strike up a conversation, which is the best possible outcome of a day out as a traveler. Secondly, it’s not very hard to take nice photos thanks to the beauty of its historical landmarks, architecture, parks and bazaars. Finally, Iranian style has a certain opulence, which translates into lavish meals, sophisticated art and loud gatherings. I took this photo at my friend’s house in the city of Lahidjan, in Gilan Province, Iran (on the Caspian Sea). Her mother had prepared some traditional dishes so that I could sample the local cuisine.

An Iranian feast. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

A sumptuous feast of traditional foods in Lahijan, Iran. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

Maybe because I live here now, but Rome is also one of my favorite places to capture with my camera. It offers many diverse subjects and situations, ranging from ancient Roman baths and villas to the traditional life of the Garbatella area, the industrial archaeology of the Ostiense neighborhood or the urban pop art that is gradually turning Rome’s suburbs into open-air museums. The photo I chose is from an area called Quadraro, once mainly considered a working-class district and now revamped thanks to a street art project that has taken over most walls around the neighborhood.

Street art livens up Quadraro, a neighborhood in Rome’s southeast periphery. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

Street art livens up Quadraro, a neighborhood in Rome’s southeast periphery. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

Wow, that last one makes me think of an Italian Alice in Wonderland! And the two food photos were amazing, each in their own way.

“When in Rome…” —early Christian proverb (now universal)

I wonder: do you ever feel reserved taking photos of people, particularly when they are conscious of your doing so? How do you handle it?
Yes, I do feel I need to be cautious when taking photos of people as I’m essentially capturing a moment of their life. I must admit, I love taking photos of the locals as they add to the value of the image and give a great sense of place, but obviously if I’m close and have the chance to converse, I always try to get familiar and make them feel more at ease. I also try not to point my lens directly in anyone’s face.

In Cambodia, for example, I had the opportunity to visit two floating villages, Kompong Khleang near Siem Reap and Phsar Krom on the way to Phnom Penh, and while I understand that tours are organized to make visitors experience life on the water and show them how Cambodians live, I sometimes felt as if we were invading their private space. I could imagine the locals wondering why tourists were so interested in their daily life—a life that seemed to me a never-ending struggle for survival.

Here is a photo from that trip, which perhaps helps to demonstrate my point:

Kompong Khleang, considered the most authentic of the three floating villages around Siem Reap, Cambodia. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

Kompong Khleang, a floating village near Siem Reap, Cambodia, and home to around 1,800 families. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

“Take pleasure in your dreams…” —Giotto di Bondone

When did you become interested in photography?
Ever since I decided to work as a freelance writer, I’ve taken photos to accompany my articles. Gradually, however, especially after I took a course on reportage photography in Rome, photography has became more of a passion and a source of inspiration, so much so that I’m starting to think about focusing on photography alone and having an exhibition one day. I enjoy devoting a whole day to taking pictures. And of course, the more I take photos the better I do with my writing. It gives me ideas for blog posts.

What is it about this art form that drew you in?
Sometimes with a camera you can capture moments, looks, colors that maybe you don’t notice and you realize only afterwards, when looking at the photos. I also like the way images can be interpreted differently depending on the viewer’s perspective. We need words, too, to avoid misunderstandings, but when it comes to art forms, an image can convey emotions and a kind of poetry that speaks to other people.

And now switching over to the technical side of things: what kind of camera, lenses, and post-processing software do you use?
After seven years of Nikon D50, I upgraded my photo gear with a Nikon D7100 last year, and I love it. I have four lenses: the normal 18-55 that I bought with my first camera and that I’m about to replace with one with bigger aperture; a Nikon 70-200; a Sigma 10-20; and a Nikon 50mm. While I started as a self-learner, I eventually felt the need to take a course, during which I improved a lot, especially when it comes to choosing the appropriate lens for particular subjects and situations. For post-processing software I use Adobe Photoshop—an early version, though, which I might need to upgrade.

“Either learn, or leave.” —Roman proverb

Finally, can you offer a few words of advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling the world or living abroad?
My advice would be to take time to interact with locals as much as possible. Understanding the host culture is crucial in order to take the pictures that will capture the essence of a place. Another piece of advice that I always try to follow myself, even though I know it’s not as straightforward as it may sound, is to get out of your comfort zone, even if this means feeling confused at first. You will adapt eventually; human beings always do. Finally, never be so arrogant to travel with the idea of imposing your own lifestyle and values on others, because it’s hardly ever the case that one culture is superior. It’s always better to travel with the idea of learning rather than teaching.

Thank you, Angela! I appreciate your sharing a selection of photos that show us how deeply you connect with the local scenery and people on your travels into various parts of the world. You seem to take the opposite approach to that of the Roman statesman Julius Caesar, he of veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered) fame. At the same time, you clearly feel a strong connection with your native Sardinia and your new home of Rome. Your travels appear to have made you appreciate Italy’s own brand of beauty. Thank you again for doing this interview. Essere uno stinco di santo.

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Angela’s peripatetic life and her photography advice? Please leave any questions or feedback for her in the comments!

If you want to get to know Angela Corrias and her creative works better, I suggest you visit her author site, where if you sign up for her e-newsletter, you’ll receive a free photo ebook on the Venice Carnival. Going to Rome any time soon? Visit Angela’s other site, Rome Actually, about her Roman adventures. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

NOTE: If you are a travel-photographer and would like to be interviewed for this series, please send your information to ml@thedisplacednation.com.

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation and SO much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: The 5 top tools for handling the culture shock roller coaster

Photo credits: HE Rybol in Germany; book cover art (both supplied).

Photo credits: HE Rybol in Germany; book cover art (both supplied).

For her column this month, transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol presents some of the material from her book, Culture Shock: A Practical Guide. For those who are new to her column, H.E. is the product of a German dad and a French mom. She was raised as a Third Culture Kid and has lived in the United States, Luxembourg, England, Spain, Switzerland and Singapore. She currently resides in Luxembourg.

Hello, Displaced Nationers. This month I want to take you into the (sometimes too rapidly beating) heart of culture shock.

As those of you who have experienced it will know, culture shock is about a series of ups and downs. On the down side, a traveler may feel:

  • alienated
  • anxious
  • disconnected
  • nervous
  • vulnerable

On the up side, they may feel:

  • curious
  • excited
  • free
  • happy
  • fully alive

If you are a regular reader of this column, you’ll know that for the past few months I’ve been quizzing expats about their experiences with culture shock so that I can add to, as well as sharpen, the tools for easing the condition that I’ve collected in my so-called culture shock toolbox.

This month I’m going to share a few ideas that you can find in my book, Culture Shock: A Practical Guide; but first let’s do something to put us into a culture-shocked state of mind. To that end, I’ve devised a quiz based on one of my own experiences.

In fact, what happened was that I continued helping until another Singaporean man walked by and said, in a rough tone: “Only a foreigner would do that.” He pressed his palms together, bowed slightly, and thanked me. I could see my helping was making the man with the flyers really uncomfortable, so I stayed just a little longer and then, wishing him good luck and smiling kindly (which he probably didn’t see as he barely looked at me!), left. Later I asked my local friends to help me interpret this rather strange (to me) encounter. They told me Singaporeans are cautious and tend to mind their own business. Is that because of they live in a nanny state? Maybe, maybe not…

Photo credit: Marina Bay Shoppes, Singapore, by David Jones[https://www.flickr.com/photos/davidcjones/11389053863/] via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/].

Photo credit: Marina Bay Shoppes, Singapore, by David Jones via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Raw…but exhilarating!

When we go into culture shock, we are in free fall. Having exited from our comfort zone, we are stripped straight down to our core. Oftentimes we lose confidence in our ability to meet the most basic needs: What do I eat? Where do I sleep?  Who do I connect with? Where do I belong? Will I be safe?

Cognitive dissonance is a big part of the problem. Our ideas and the reality we find sur place don’t match—which can feel threatening.

But leaving our comfort zone also propels us into a moment of accelerated growth. As we slowly begin to make sense of all the new sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures—and interactions with others—we expand our minds to incorporate new perspectives. There is potential for us to learn compassion, kindness and gratitude. The experience may feel raw—but it can also be exhilarating.

Photo credit: Roller coaster via Pixabay.

Photo credit: Legoland roller coaster in Denmark,via Pixabay.

Some of you readers should know me well enough by now that you can predict the next step: I can hardly wait to open my toolbox and offer you some tips for achieving this potential for growth.

5 tools for handling the culture shock roller coaster:

1. Consider the benefits: The term “culture shock” often evokes negative connotations. But let’s turn that on its head and pretend for a moment we don’t need a toolbox. Simply ask yourself:

How have challenging cultural transitions positively impacted my life?

2. Use food as an icebreaker: Food is a great way to learn about a new country and connect with people over a shared need. Say, how about getting out those cooking tools? 🙂

3. Communicate: “Please”, “thank you”, and a smile go a long way in someone else’s culture. Learn some basic phrases in the new language before you take off. For sure, a small phrase book, pocket dictionary or app ought to be in that toolbox. While you won’t end up having an in-depth conversation about political or social issues right away, at least you’ve made a start. Also, given that most communication is nonverbal, don’t be afraid to use your hands and feet—always fun no matter how clumsy it might feel! Find out about body language. What’s the polite way to hail a cab? Beckon someone to come over? Is it rude or polite to look someone directly in the eyes? Observe.

4. Slow down: Treat the fact that you are entering a new culture as an opportunity to slow down and take it easy. Take time to adapt and go of any preconceptions. Think of this tool as a pressure valve: open it up and let go all of that stress and pressure out. Don’t force yourself to visit as many sights as you can—even if you feel obliged to do so. The point is to enjoy yourself, isn’t it? Allow yourself time to fully experience this transition.

5. Practice the art of being grateful: Seeing life from a different perspective is a wonderful way to learn to appreciate what we have been given, on the road as well as in the home we’ve left behind. Here are some of the things I’ve become grateful for while traveling:
• hot water
• clean water
• a bed
• access to fresh food
• restrooms
Mostly, though, I’m grateful for the kindness of strangers, conversations I had with people I met along the way, friends I made, lessons I learned—and the privilege of having had the opportunity to experience all this in the first place. As often as possible, use the tools you have at hand to open your mind to the good things that surround you.

* * *

Readers, I hope this has you “fixed” until next month. Until then. Prost! Santé!

Editor’s Note: The above post was adapted from Chapter 1 of H.E. Rybol’s Culture Shock: A Practical Guide. It is followed by six chapters full of tips:
1. How to deal with craving comfort
2. How to process new information
3. How to cope without autopilot
4. How to deal with difficult situations
5. How to deal with alienation
6. How to unite both worlds within yourself

H.E. Rybol is a TCK and the author of Culture Shock: A Practical Guide and Culture Shock Toolbox. She loves animals, piano, yoga and being outdoors. You can find her on Twitter, Linkedin and Goodreads. She recently launched a new Web site and is now working on her second book.  

STAY TUNED for the next fab post.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation—and much, much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related post:

%d bloggers like this: